Interview with Wendy James - Part 1

Wendy James is the author of Out of the Silence which was published in 2005 by Random House. It was the only Australian debut novel published by the company during that year. Wendy is a regular commenter to this weblog and recently agreed to be interviewed by me by email.

Matilda: This is your first novel so a lot of readers won't know much about you. Can you give a potted history of your writing career to date?

Wendy James: I really only began writing in 1992: I was 25, had had two children, and I figured this probably meant I was a bona fide 'grown-up' ... so thought I'd better get going. I started out writing short stories and to my great surprise my first stories were very well-received - I won a couple of prizes, and was published in journals and anthologies pretty regularly: Voices, Ulitarra, Meanjin, Australian Short Stories, Southerly, Westerly, etc, and in James Bradley's Gen-X anthology Blur (though I think I may have been a bit of anomaly in that collection - being married, living in the suburbs, having children etc, and not really a stereotypical gen-xer). When I finished my undergrad degree at Sydney Uni - which I'd done fairly slowly, due to work, kids, etc, I did an MA writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, and then having discovered the story of Maggie Heffernan, applied to write her story as my Doctorate of Creative Arts. We moved to Armidale in 1998 (my husband's a police officer, and Armidale was a very welcome transfer from Kings-X where he'd been for 6 years) and UTS wasn't really set up for external studies, so I applied to Deakin. I was given a place in their PhD program - and a postgrad scholarship - which made the whole project possible.

The novel took about five years to write -- I had another 2 children during that time -- and sadly the theoretical component of the PhD still hasn't been written. I'm waiting for no 1 to finish school, and No 4 to start...

M: So, all the way through you've been juggling the raising of four children and starting a writing career. You must have found it difficult just to find the time and energy to put pen to paper. What kept you going?

WJ: Well, for a long while we were only raising two... I'm not sure about energy, but I think perhaps it was the experience of motherhood (for which I was totally unprepared, and sort of isolated - most of my friends pursued careers first, and started their families later) that sharpened everything and somehow galvanised me into action. Looking back, there was a degree of criticism, and I probably felt like I had a lot to prove. Actually, looking back 10 years or so, when I was studying part time, working part time, and writing, I do feel a bit exhausted, and can't quite remember how I managed it (ah, youth!) I don't think I could do it now. Maybe the eldest two spent an awful lot of time in front of the television... But I don't think mine's an isolated case -- most writers have to work at something else to keep body and soul together. And most - all - parents become adept at keeping all those balls in the air...

M: Yes, it seems to never end. How did you come across the story of Maggie Heffernan? And what was it about her story that sparked the idea of a novel?

WJ: I first discovered Maggie's story in Verity Burgmann & Jenny Lee's People's History of Australia. Just browsing, as you do... In Marilyn Lake's essay, "Intimate Strangers", which examines the consequences of the traditional sexual division of labour, I came across this brief but compelling snippet of history:

Maggie Heffernan, an unmarried domestic servant...had given birth at the Women's Hospital then transferred to a home in the suburbs of Armadale. When released from there she walked the city attempting to find accommodation. She had nothing to eat and was unable to feed her screaming baby. Down near the river she quietly undressed her screaming child and dropped him in the river. Frightened at what she had done Heffernan tried to get a position as a wet-nurse in Hawthorn where she was arrested and charged with murder.

Initially I noted these details down thinking I might use them in a short story - I hadn't quite dared to think about the possibility of writing a novel. I suspect the story struck a chord because at the time I first encountered it I was haunted (as I think many new mothers are) by the dreadful spectre of separation for whatever reason from my children. Anyway, I became particularly preoccupied by the compelling and terrifying figure of the abandoning/relinquishing mother and all the questions the act of abandonment raises: What it might mean for the mother -- what forces could drive her to relinquish or abandon her children, how this would shape her subsequent existence; and then what are the effects on the children themselves, what might it mean to have your mother leave you. A number of my short stories seem to have this theme, these questions, running through them. So I guess to tackle a story based around an infanticide - the ultimate relinquishment - was to follow a natural (if somewhat grim) trajectory - perhaps there's a sense of staring the very worst thing in the face, I'm not quite sure...

M: So where did that snippet of history lead you? Was there any major historical document you could examine for details of the case?

WJ: The snippet didn't really lead anywhere until I happened to read Janette Bomford's biography of Vida Goldstein... That's when the two narratives really meshed: Maggie's tragedy, Vida's championing of her - and then the story of the suffrage. Suddenly I could see a very big story taking shape.

Initially the bulk of the information on Maggie came from one secondary source - there's an honours thesis dealing with nineteenth century 'reproductive crime' that examines her case, but eventually I had to visit the Victorian Public record office at Laverton (my first trip to Melbourne!) and go through the papers there. Of course, that was a goldmine....

M: You then had two major threads of the case in Maggie Heffernan and Vida Goldstein, and decided to add another. Was this for a sense of balance to the story, to add the viewpoint of Elizabeth, the upper middle-class Englishwoman?

WJ: I'd intended, when I first began planning the novel, to have the character of Vida Goldstein centre stage; to have her story, and the story of the suffrage, from her perspective. I read as much as I could find about her during this particular period - and read pages and pages of her journalism - but I just wasn't able to get a grip on her: she's a rather opaque figure -- and so highly politically motivated (for obvious reasons) during this time, that the private person - the private life - was difficult to discern. Then I tried writing a diary from the perspective of Goldstein's great friend Celia John, who was her constant companion in later years. Celia would have been very young at the time the novel was set, a music student newly arrived from Tasmania, and there's no actual record of their meeting then, so the relationship that I developed was entirely imaginary -- and became quite silly. It was very much the diary of a besotted young admirer -- whose main concern was Vida Goldstein's life rather than her own (though I did develop some nice metaphors based around Celia's interest in music and eurythmics...ah well). Her awed admiration for Vida and her work also became tedious -- I needed a slightly more critical perspective. Somehow I couldn't get this relationship to provide any narrative momentum - I toyed with the idea of a lesbian relationship -- but this seemed a terrible literary cliche and historically unlikely. Then, to spice things up, I thought I'd have Vida have an affair with some Labor politician. I did a heap of research on likely candidates, but again, it was historically inaccurate -- and pretty silly. Somehow (hard to remember how exactly!) I realised I needed to make Vida the secondary character - that a diary about her but written by another character could never feel authentic. I needed a real person with a real life -- and that person would have to be imaginary. This sounds odd, I know, when other trajectories were abandoned because of historical inaccuracy -- but the 'big lie' of the invented cousins, and Vida's stay with them, didn't significantly alter anything we know about Goldstein's character...and that seemed a very important ethical consideration, in fictionalising a public figure. In my early research I'd done some reading around the subject of female immigration - shipboard diaries, diaries and letters of women who'd come to escape the poor conditions, and social constrictions of Britain - who'd come hoping for a new life (and of course, some of them hoping for marriage, perhaps) - and these women seemed so immensely brave, making that long journey, with no guarantee of return if it all went wrong, often arriving with no money, no connections. And then their experiences here were sometimes so wretched, so utterly at odds with their expectations. The character of Elizabeth came from all this. In one sense she was, I suppose, the solution to a narrative problem, but her actual (ok, imaginary) predicament soon became quite compelling...That Elizabeth provided such a neat counterpoint to Maggie (in terms of class, experience, etc) was just good luck really -- and not good planning.

The second part of this interview will appear tomorrow.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 27, 2006 10:52 AM.

Text Publishing and The Secret River was the previous entry in this blog.

2006 Orange Prize for Fiction is the next entry in this blog.

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